Review: Six Months in 1945

Six Months in 1945: From World War to Cold War, Michael Dobbs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

Summary: An account of the six months from Yalta to Hiroshima and how the decisions and events of those months shaped the post-war world.

Michael Dobbs contends that the six months from February to August of 1945 profoundly shaped the post-war world dashing the hopes for world peace, replacing it with a “cold” war between the two major superpowers to emerge from the world. How did Allies against Germany become adversaries?

The account begins with the conference at Yalta in the Crimea. Planned to accommodate Stalin, it represented an arduous journey via ship, air, rail, and auto for a dying president and a recently ill prime minister. Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill arrived at the top of their game. What they found at the conference was a Stalin who was. Given that his country had borne the brunt of the war against Germany (and the casualties), he came with terms on which he would not yield about the borders and government of Poland and his influence in Eastern Europe. Dobbs shows how Roosevelt and Churchill, sometimes with vagueness of wording, tried to reach agreements about the shape of the post-war world that preserved self-autonomy for these countries and preservation of the unity of Germany. Roosevelt described their efforts as “the best I could do.” For Churchill, the handwriting was on the wall for his influence and the British empire. He recognized that he now was junior to the two great powers.

The second part traces the conclusion of the war, the race for Berlin, the death of Roosevelt, the linkup and the zones of occupation. The new president, Harry Truman almost immediately had to stand up to Molotov on the matter of Poland and honoring the agreements of Yalta. But as the old saying goes, possession is nine-tenths of the law, and the Russians were in possession of most of what they wanted. Amid all this, Dobbs captures the momentary joy of the meet-up of forces.

Part Three covers the conference in Potsdam, the tenuous balance of standing up to Stalin as an “iron curtain” descends on Eastern Europe and Poland’s government is dominated by pro-Communist leaders., even while Stalin’s help is still sought to deal with Japan. During the conference, Churchill learns that the elections he called turned him out of office. And Truman learned that the test of atomic weapons was devastatingly successful. Japan would be warned, resist, be bombed twice, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and capitulate, even as Russia was turning back forces in Manchuria but was still short of all the prizes sought in the East.

A foreign service officer from the U.S. in Russia sent his famous “long telegram” with his analysis of Russian intent and recommendation of an American policy of containment, which became our foreign policy until 1989 (and may be once more). Reading this made me wonder if the combination of weariness and perhaps naivete of Roosevelt, and the divorce of military strategy and geopolitical assessment led to this outcome. Churchill saw this coming. But he was also the one so cautious about a cross-channel invasion. Great Britain and America’s late engagement, after the Russians’ years of fighting and dying and turning back the German threat left them in a place where all they could do was say “pretty please” to a country who held most of the cards.

For those whose knowledge of this history is a few vaguely remembered paragraphs in a history book, this is a detailed plunge into these six defining months exploring the personalities, the changing power dynamics, the events and the geopolitics that shaped the post-war world. The account balances depth and pace in a way that always fascinates and never plods. It demonstrates that nothing may be so dangerous as a charming vision of world peace between ideological and geopolitical adversaries. Yalta was the wake-up call, and Potsdam the effort to contain the damages. But the amity of a wartime alliance would be no more.

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